Ask not what Materials Science can do for you…

Last week, from at least 3 different sources, I was referred to the work of the Lords Science and Technology Committee Sub-Committee on Waste Reduction. What I found intrigued me. Their question set demonstrates huge insight into the problem, and manages to take several different views of the subject.

They start by asking the question those familiar with Materials UK know is at the core of our strategy – how can design be used to create a more sustainable future? Designers are only capable of making the “correct” selection of material for any application when they have a large data set of information and the answers to many questions..

i) does the material have the right physical properties for the application?

ii) can it be manufactured into the correct format for application?

These two questions can be answered, but the raw materials data needs to be integrated into the shape of the product.

iii) will the materials stand the stress of the application?

The ability of a material to withstand fatigue in any application is as much a function of its shape as its constitution. This sort of information is very much owned by people who make products and not always traded freely in the open information market, but it does exist. What the Select Committee asks next takes us into a largely “data free” environment

iv) can the designer take into account the energy content of the material?

v) can the designer vary the energy cost of manufacture? And

vi) can the designer take account of the fate of the product after use?

Materials UK has looked into this area and has, so far, found a fair amount of confusion and inaccuracy. Life Cycle Analysis has been used for many years now, but I have been struck by how frequently data from different sources can vary markedly. This is not a conspiracy but a function of complexity. Many materials have different life histories, both in terms of chemistry and processing. Unfortunately, it is not possible to “tag” a lump of material and follow its exact trajectory through time and space so that its energy and carbon history is known. In most cases the numbers can be estimated, but not guaranteed, but many materials can be produced in several different ways and sorting out provenance is difficult.

Not content with asking one very complex and difficult question, the Select Committee go further. They probe the business environment where their first questions get asked. Even if materials and components could come with a proper energy and carbon inventory as they enter your premises, would those numbers outweigh the more standard “what did it cost?” question? Until price reflects the environmental impact of activity, then it is difficult to see how things will change. This gets them nicely to their next question – can design be used to change consumer behaviour? Although it might be seen as surprising that the dark arts of marketing can be used to better humanity, there are several instances where the business drivers and the needs of customers and environment have aligned in an almost mystical syzygy to give concrete meaning to the “triple bottom line”. They are, sadly, not that common and need recognising and applauding.

Having asked several of the most difficult questions that face our civilisation, the Select Committee then move in for the killer blow – and ask “are we training the right sort of people to make all this happen?”

If you have even part of the answer, I recommend you follow the link at the top of the page and make your contribution to their thinking. You have until October 22nd. The rigour and honesty of these questions deserves an answer.

Materials UK
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